Route de la Cuisine: 3 French Chefs

Deep in the heart of the country, three creative pioneers are remastering the art of French cooking. Arthur Lubow makes a pilgrimage to where the wild things are.

Driving through the French countryside in summer, most visitors will marvel at the fields of vivid flowers, and others may even pause to take in the floral fragrance. But only a culinary fanatic would wonder how the wildflowers taste. Or so you might think, until you've tried a sauce laced with petals from the scarlet poppies that dot the roadsides here, or a custard redolent of the shy wood violets that pop up in the foothills of the Alps. And once you begin, where do you stop? The tiny mousseron mushrooms that grow wild in the pasture have an intensity that their fat domesticated cousins cannot approach, and the bitter gentian root, when distilled into an aperitif, has a complexity that your barman could never pour from his highest shelf.

The modern palate has been deadened by substitutes: margarine, vanillin, factory-farmed vegetables. Everything is sanitized, homogenized, standardized. But there is now in the French heartland a très haute cuisine whose practitioners, reacting against such blandness, find their inspiration at the most basic levels: Their ultrarefined cooking relies on uncultivated ingredients. These chefs seek not just to restore the undoctored products our parents used but to recover the heirloom vegetables of our grandparents' time—and, pressing ever backwards, to gather the wild plants and herbs and roots that were once foraged by our ancestors.

They will sauce a lobster with a foam of wild spinach, or pair foie gras with a reduction made from apricots and the humble lentil. This game of mix-and-match stems in part from the self-confidence of the connoisseur, who can insouciantly combine the high with the low (as architect Rem Koolhaas did with zebrawood and corrugated plastic in the flagship Prada store in New York). But it is also a celebration of traditional ingredients and methods that are in danger of disappearing. Hence the revival of ancient grains like quinoa and spelt, and the elevation of herbs like tansy and woodruff.

Ultimately, this new approach is a search for intense, complicated tastes. "The rule for a chef is to come up with new flavors," says Jean-Georges Vongerichten, the chef-proprietor of Jean Georges in New York. "Rosemary and basil are redundant. Everything is in the supermarket—blah, blah. But there are so many things we haven't tried. Yarrow, for example, has an incredible flavor. Chicken with sassafras? It's like a new chicken."

Three chefs in France, based within a day's journey of each other, are showing the world just what can be done in the kitchen with wild plants. Marc Veyrat, a self-described 11th-generation shepherd, can be found at one of his two restaurants (depending on the season) in the Haute-Savoie, near Geneva. The austere Michel Bras cooks in the little-visited Aubrac, a Gallicized version of the Dakota high country in south-central France. Between the two, in the beautifully situated hamlet of Saint-Bonnet-le-Froid, Régis Marcon has made his reputation as the master of the mushroom. To eat at the restaurants of these three chefs is to appreciate the subtlety, earthiness, and complexity of foraged herbs and vegetables, and to perceive what the French have long known: For the overly civilized, nothing is as luxurious as a natural world that has been rinsed of its rigor, but not of its savor.

Marc Veyrat shares the sensibility that propelled Marie Antoinette out of Versailles to disport as a milkmaid. Not since her ornamental dairy farm near Le Petit Trianon has there been anything so opulently rustic as the two restaurants that he runs with eccentric flair. In Auberge de l'Eridan, his warm-weather restaurant and inn on the shore of Lake Annecy, living moss is painstakingly inserted (and regularly moistened) between the pine boards of the dining-room walls. In one room, the ceiling is hung with large drying racks that contain lentils, walnuts, and wheat; in the other, earthenware pots line the rafters. On the tables, wildflowers are nestled in small, artfully crude wooden boxes. When the meal arrives, some courses are presented on hunks of tree bark, and the "half-cooked" vegetables, flavored with a gently acerbic sauce of lemon balm, lemongrass, verbena, and salsify flowers, come in Mason jars. Should you be fortunate enough to stay overnight, the dream lingers: Veyrat's Savoyard Breakfast—orange and blackberry juices, smoky mountain ham, cured salmon from Lake Annecy, thick whipped cheese, fluffy scrambled eggs—comes in a straw-filled wicker basket on an old pine trolley rolled to your room, where flat-screen TVs and high-tech bathroom fixtures coexist happily with decorative antique tools.

Not content with this bucolic fantasy, Veyrat took things further in his second restaurant, La Ferme de Mon Père, which he opened in 1999 as a wintertime destination in the ski resort of Megève, an hour's drive from Annecy. Here he painstakingly reproduced the stables of his father's simple farm in the mountains of the Haute-Savoie. In addition to the massive rough-hewn beams, mossy cracks, antique farm implements, and pine furniture that he had designed for Auberge de l'Eridan, he imported livestock. The placid cows and goats contemplate the diners from below, separated by thick glass panes set into the floor. The diners return their curious gaze. "People at Megève eat surrounded by animals and they sing at the end of the meal," says Veyrat, 53, beaming beneath his trademark black shepherd's hat. "They put the tables together and they take a digestive together. Real luxury is perhaps that."

Certainly the critics seem to think so. Veyrat is the only chef other than Alain Ducasse to run two restaurants accorded the highest ratings from both the Michelin and Gault-Millau guides. (The two restaurants are essentially the same; he moves his staff back and forth in April and December.) A self-taught chef from the village of Manigod, in the ruggedly beautiful region at the foot of the French Alps, Veyrat scours the countryside for herbs and roots to use in his cooking. At Auberge de l'Eridan, when I wonder about the pale-green foam of chénopode bon-henri, or "good King Henry," that lightly coats a smoky lobster, the waiter says, "It's a wild spinach," and points to a nearby bouquet of a large, weedy plant that resembles ragweed. Later, Veyrat explains, "I am a peasant. One never buys spinach. My mother, if she wanted to cook, would say, 'Gather wild spinach for soup.' She would take wild caraway, which tastes like cumin, to put into cheese." I had never tasted wild caraway—it does taste just like cumin. Instead of using the seeds to flavor cheese, however, Veyrat extracts their essence into pebbly bonbons. Placing one of these little rocks in your mouth, you take a straw and sip an "Irish coffee" of rich duck-and-vegetable bouillon capped with a foam of sweet corn. Mom's home cooking this is not. What it resembles most is the outlandishly original cuisine Ferran Adrià creates at El Bulli in Spain.

One of Veyrat's more amusing creations is a chicken broth he pours over a cold "sorbet" of chicken liver. The hot liquid melts the rich livery ball, exploding its flavors. At that point the waiter presents a test tube sprouting fat white noodles that dangle over the side. You're asked to taste one. The "noodles" are made from two local cheeses, Beaufort and Reblochon, without butter or flour. They dissolve in the soup immediately. "Tradition wants a chicken bouillon, and traditionally you mix in Reblochon," Veyrat says. "Everybody eats that. But I create a new technique. The spaghetti melts and you find yesterday's taste. There are always familiar details you recognize in every dish, a connection with tradition." Veyrat's inspired cooking is also lively theater.

His signature dish makes a spectacular entrance: A coddled egg in its shell nestles alone on a long strip of hollowed-out, moss-lined bark. As soon as it is set down, another waiter rushes up, holding a syringe. With surgical precision he injects the soft-cooked egg with an extract of oxalis, a cloverlike plant that has a sour sorrel taste. When asked about the bizarre presentation of this delicious dish, Veyrat says, "It is a science. Why the syringe? The form is an egg white and egg yolk—if you put in a spoon it would get all mixed up. It's a problem of technique. It is not to look beautiful." He's right. The subtly astringent flavor permeates the egg without muddling it. Veyrat's dogged search for intense tastes keeps the showmanship from descending into charlatanry.

The cuisines of Marc Veyrat and Michel Bras are very different," says the renowned Chicago chef Charlie Trotter. "The similarity is that they are both out foraging, digging up these unusual plants and roots. These two guys are doing the most exciting things in France. Until a couple of years ago, I felt Marc Veyrat's was the best restaurant in France." These days, Trotter considers Michel Bras' establishment "the best all-around restaurant in France," creating "brilliant" food that is also "completely natural."

Bras, another autodidact from an even sterner, more remote district, is Veyrat's illustrious predecessor in foraging. As reticent as Veyrat is exuberant, Bras, 56, has the steely, unwavering gaze of a fanatical monk. His eponymous Michelin-three-star restaurant in Laguiole, a small town in south-central France famous for its cutlery, looms over the scenic plain of the Aubrac like a spaceship. Instead of Veyrat's idealized farm, Bras has built a Zen temple of granite and glass. It is cantilevered out from a flat hilltop, with low ceilings and wide windows that accentuate the horizon line and the vast sky of moving clouds and mist. Like Bras' cooking, the architecture frames the harsh beauty of the Aubrac elegantly and honestly, enhancing without prettifying it.

To understand the difference between Bras and Veyrat one need only compare their most celebrated dishes. Next to Veyrat's crowd-pleasing injected egg place a plate that in its quieter way is just as astonishing—Bras' gargouillou. There is a traditional recipe by that name in the nearby region of Auvergne; however, that gargouillou is peasant fare made of milk-dipped bread, cheese, and potatoes. Bras' gargouillou occupies another realm. Made daily and according to the season, it is a mix of as many as 30 tender vegetables, herbs, fruits, and flowers, each cooked (or not) to bring out its purest flavor; the ingredients are then lightly tossed in a glistening vegetable broth that carries the faint savor of a sautéed slice of ham. One night in mid-June, the gargouillou includes artichoke wedges, thin spears of wild asparagus, longitudinal slices of zucchini and carrot, a purple basil leaf, a perfect blue borage flower, and peas almost tiny enough to slip between the tines of a fork. A smear of sweet red-beet paste marks one side of the plate. Everything is arranged on the dish so perfectly that it looks like a painted porcelain pattern. Prepared with equal sensitivity to appearance and taste, it is the most delightful vegetable dish I have ever encountered. When Bras began making it a couple of decades ago, the local clientele thought he was mad. He sold two or three plates a week. Now he serves 60 to 100 a day.

Bras is a culinary poet. Asking him the origins of his recipes is like asking Rimbaud why he wrote about a drunken boat. Take, for example, the inspiration for his invention of the coulant—a cake with a molten filling. For Bras it starts with a long car trip he and his family took in foul weather some 20 years ago. "We were cold after skiing, and we wanted something to eat," he recalls. "The children were saying, 'I want chocolate!' It was very cold outside; inside it was warm. I had the idea." For the next two years he reflected, refined, and perfected it. Eventually he discovered the way to bake a chocolate cake with a warm liquid interior. Having eaten countless imitations over the years, I am excited at the prospect of trying the original. Dare I say it? I think that the chocolate flavor could have been more intense. It is the one plate that slightly disappointed me.

Although the gargouillou and the coulant are his two most famous creations, the dish that Bras considers emblematic of his culinary approach he calls la lumière et l'ombre, or "light and shade." Bras is a long-distance runner. Dashing one day across the green plain of the Aubrac, with its pastures, wooded groves, and enormous sky, he was moved by the sight of black storm clouds scudding across the horizon. He transposed the mood into this recipe: white monkfish, poached in an olive oil that has been infused black with olives and served with mustard greens. Earthy, slightly bitter, white smudged with black and bordered with green—it is as faithful as an artist's sketch of his beloved region. "My cuisine tells a story," he says. "I stay in nature and I contemplate it. I am a cook in love with Nature with a capital N." He fills red notebooks with his sketches and notes, sometimes working two or three years (as with the coulant) to bring a recipe to fruition. "There is always a reference to the Aubrac," says his son and cooking partner, Sébastien Bras. "Little shoots of fir trees—he thought it a very agreeable and fresh smell. He put it into dough to make bread, and then made that into breadcrumbs to sprinkle on fish. Another time, he layered very thick slices of salmon with very thin slabs of pork fat, in a kind of mille-feuille. He takes salmon, which is not from here, and gives it the flavor of the terroir."

From his purist's perspective, Bras is skeptical of showmanship in the dining room. In particular he disapproves of Veyrat's test tubes and injections. "Cooking for me is without syringes or so many foams," he says acidly. "It is an act of love. The syringe you get when you have a headache."

In his relatively straightforward recipes, Régis Marcon demonstrates lucidly why increasing numbers of chefs are looking to old-fashioned grains, wild herbs, and forgotten vegetables for inspiration. Presiding over the Michelin-two-star Clos des Cimes, the affable Marcon has made his native village of Saint-Bonnet-le-Froid into a pilgrimage site for mushroom lovers. "Régis Marcon is a magician of the earth, gathering all that grows, listening to the throbbing of nature to restore its purity and primitiveness," the Gault-Millau Guide declared, in praising his "immense talent" and making him Chef of the Year for 2001.

Like Veyrat, who is descended from shepherds, and Bras, the son of a blacksmith father and an innkeeper mother, Marcon, 47, grew up poor in a stark, isolated region. His parents owned a farm near Saint-Bonnet-le-Froid until 1948, when they moved to the village to run a small café. But unlike Bras and Veyrat, who are completely self-taught, Marcon studied cooking at the Ecole Hôtelière de Grenoble. "I was interested in art and drawing," he recalls, "but my mother said, 'You can't make a living with that job.' " After graduation he returned home and took command of the café, which was attached to a gas station. Initially, just as Veyrat did in his first humble bistro in the mountains and Bras did at his original restaurant, at a crossroads in Laguiole, Marcon cooked what the locals were used to: meat, with an emphasis on charcuterie, and potatoes. As he grew more confident, he realized he could be faithful to the spirit of his native Ardèche without slavishly reproducing its peasant cookery.

Marcon sometimes chooses to refine the traditional fare of the region. The whole leg of lamb in a crust of baked bread that his mother roasted on festive occasions reappears on his menu as an individually sized portion of saddle of lamb. Most of the bread is removed by the server (a small piece is left as a souvenir); the condiment on the side of the plate—a spicy powder of dried orange peel and ginger—is his creative embellishment. At other times he relies on culinary research rather than on fond memory. In the departmental archive in the nearby cathedral town of Le Puy, he was fascinated by a recipe for a "brochette Margaridou": skewers of sweetbreads, morels, and mountain ham are covered in a béchamel flavored with dried-mushroom powder, and then (after chilling) coated with beaten egg whites and bread crumbs, fried in hot oil, and served with a cream sauce enriched by chopped truffles. Marcon experimented tirelessly. "I tried adding foie gras or nettles or entire eggs instead of egg whites, but I realized it was better in the original," he says. So he cooks it that way. Creamy and crispy, it is an irresistibly rich dish that is a throwback to the way the privileged class ate a century ago.

Like Veyrat and Bras, Marcon finds inspiration close by. The region around Le Puy, for example, is famous for its lentils. "You have them with pork and veal," he says. "But I try to go as far as possible with the ingredient." He points out that lentils taste something like chestnuts. "And what can you make with chestnuts? Ice cream, mousses, cakes. So what can you make with lentils? Ice cream, mousses, cakes." And so he does. His tasty lentil cake looks like a small brown castle until you open it up with your spoon. It is his variation on Bras' coulant—the molten filling flows out on the plate. Paired with a pear sorbet crowned with a scoop of kirsch granita, Marcon's lentil coulant is a clever use of a homely local ingredient. Less successful is the one repellent creation I sampled on my culinary tour: a roasted banana with a morel sauce. Mushrooms are very adaptable, but not infinitely so.

The cooking of these chefs, although rooted in the wild plants and traditional products of their regions, is far from parochial. How could it be otherwise? Modern French food descends from the nouvelle cuisine of the '70s, which bore an unmistakable Japanese influence. Furthermore, all three chefs have traveled widely. Bras supervises a restaurant bearing his name at the Windsor Hotel Toya on Hokkaido island, in northern Japan; Marcon works for a consulting company that sends him to Japan for a couple of weeks each winter. Asian influences are readily apparent. One of Veyrat's well-known dishes is a "ravioli" of thin turnip slices stuffed with chopped vegetables; he calls it sushi en folie, or "crazy sushi," although a Vietnamese spring roll would be more like it. As an amuse-bouche he offers a thimbleful of spiced yogurt that evokes an Indian lassi; and I am reminded of a Thai fried puff when I bite into the thin wafer, flavored intensely with the essence of crab, that accompanies a squid stewed with earthy, minty ground ivy. Marcon serves a very Japanese pickled radish alongside his foie gras and vinegared lentils, and even Bras—whose cooking is virtually sui generis—offers an amuse-bouche of bulgur and preserved lemon, which is essentially a sublime tabbouleh.

In short, the ingredients may be local, but the cooking is global. Some of their forgotten plants originated in the New World, such as quinoa (a distant cousin of "good King Henry"), which the Incas used like barley. "Certain foods, like quinoa and spelt, I use first because they are healthy, and second because one rediscovers the taste," Marcon says.

Even when these chefs use herbs they have known since childhood, they transform them. "My mother used many herbs, but mainly for medicine—to sleep, to cure stomachache, for bruises," Marcon says. As a child, he, like Bras' son Sébastien, would be given an infusion of bitter tansy for an upset stomach. Now he uses tansy to flavor a foam on top of a mushroom "cappuccino," while Sébastien Bras mixes a small amount with cocoa powder in a chocolate sorbet.

Each chef names a different herb as his favorite. For Marcon, it is mélisse des bois ("bastard balm"), a midsummer plant that is "very powerful, used for syrups and infusions, very fresh like basil and lemongrass—it tastes of licorice, verbena, mint." Veyrat champions calamint, a tall plant that flowers all summer. "In oenology, when a wine's aroma is indefinable, one says it has an 'arôme putassier,' " he explains. "It is not definable, it is capable of anything. Calamint has all these different tastes in it—roses, beets, mint, woods." (He uses it to flavor oysters and yogurt.) Bras selected as the symbol of his restaurant the finely divided leaf of cistre, which in English is called baldmoney or spignel. "It grows at a high altitude, from the middle of April to October," he says. "The cows of the Aubrac eat it, so you taste it in the milk and the cheese." In the course of his six-month season, Bras uses 250 to 350 different herbs and vegetables. At one point during a long dinner, I asked his maître d' to identify an unfamiliar flower on my plate. When he told me the French name I must have looked blank, because he disappeared for a moment and returned with a wildflower guide—in this kitchen more important than a copy of Escoffier. (The flower was a wild marigold.)

The essence of such cooking is inextricably tied to its raw materials. At Veyrat's restaurant, I inquire about the English name for omble chevalier, a deep-dwelling lake fish with sweet, faintly muddy flesh. Veyrat serves it whole, in a light sauce sprinkled with red poppy petals. It's a knockout to the eye and the palate (and, at 99 euros, to the wallet).

"Omble chevalier," the maître d' replies. "It isn't found in England."

"Is it found anywhere but Lake Annecy?"

"Yes," he says. "Lake Geneva."

"Anywhere else?"

"Not as far as I know, sir."

Later, I rediscover it at Marcon's restaurant, where the source is a private lake that has been stocked with young fish from the Savoie. (Marcon serves a thick slice of it in a wild-sorrel sauce, with quinoa on the side.) "This cooking is rooted in this region and it is difficult to transport," Marcon says. "In New York, there are very good fish, but not omble chevalier. And not the mushrooms we have here."

That, of course, is why we happily go out of our way to visit restaurants like these: they are as rooted in their locales as a massive oak or an ancient cathedral. "We don't really have any examples in this country of restaurants of that level that are out in the middle of nowhere, where you can forage," Charlie Trotter says. "We don't have a counterpart to what they are doing with the land, where the environment is absolutely a part of the cuisine." Too often we journey thousands of miles only to discover the food, the clothes, the billboards we thought we left back home. Traveling, we hope to find something that cannot travel to us. At these restaurants, we can taste the Savoie, the Aubrac, the Ardèche. We feel that we have arrived somewhere.

Four for the Road

A drive through the heart of France between the restaurants of Marc Veyrat, Régis Marcon, and Michel Bras covers all sorts of terrain—the Alpine lakes and meadows of Savoie, the woodlands and pastures of Ardèche, and the bleakly beautiful plain of the Aubrac. This is la France profonde dans toute sa gloire.

The trip from Lake Annecy southwest to Laguiole is about 250 miles by car: 115 miles from Annecy to Saint-Bonnet-le-Froid; and 135 miles farther to Laguiole. Geneva is the closest international city to Annecy, while Lyon is the nearest to Saint-Bonnet-le-Froid and Laguiole. The most convenient route would begin by picking up a car in Geneva, taking it to Annecy, from there to Saint-Bonnet-le-Froid, and finally to Laguiole, before dropping it in Lyon. Both Geneva and Lyon are connected to Paris by frequent TGV trains. If you pick up the car at the Geneva International Airport, you can save a hefty drop-off fee simply by walking from the Swiss side of the airport to the French side. The major car rental companies have counters at both. In Lyon, the car can be dropped either at the central Part Dieu train station or at Saint-Exupery International Airport.

Driving from Saint-Bonnet-le-Froid to Laguiole, you must pass through Le Puy, a medieval pilgrimage town with an impressive cathedral and a picturesque ancient quarter. It is located in a region of puys, or volcanic basalt peaks, several topped with medieval towers. It's well worth a side trip of at least a couple of hours.

Marc Veyrat
1 Auberge de l'Eridan, Lake Annecy

The four-story mansion commands a breathtaking lakeside view. Marc Veyrat has designed the dining room in farmhouse style—heavy wood beams, fir-plank walls, and ceiling racks of dried lentils, walnuts, and wheat. The wine list is awe-inspiring in its reach and its cost, although the unusual local wines, such as the Chignin-Bergeron, are cheaper. The nine rooms and two suites are spacious and rustically opulent, with pine-board sofas and chairs covered in braided straw, and antique framed specimens of dried herbs. With their flat-screen TVs and antique farm implements, they're fit for a city-slicker's dream of country life.

RECOMMENDED DISHES Coddled egg with oxalis injection; chicken soup with foie gras sorbet and "noodles" of Reblochon and Beaufort cheese; omble chevalier in a poppy sauce.

Dinner: 16-course Sonata Menu, $235; 19-course Symphony Menu, $320. A la carte, $195-$270. Rooms: $490-$690. Suites: $670 and $735. At 13 vieille route des Pensières, Veyrier-du-Lac, Annecy; 33-4-50-60-24-00; Open mid-May through mid-November, Wednesday- Sunday for dinner; Saturday-Sunday for lunch; and Tuesday for dinner in July and August.

2 La Ferme de Mon Père, Megève
Veyrat's three-year-old restaurant in the ski resort of Megève, an hour's drive from Annecy. Like the Auberge, but even more so: There is livestock behind glass watching you eat. Similar menu, except in black-truffle season (December-March) there is even greater opportunity to run up the bill. Seven guestrooms and two suites opened in December. Dinner: 16-course Sonata Menu, $295; 19-course Symphony Menu, $380. A la carte, $220-$425. Rooms: $490-$995. Suites: $2,560. At 367 route du Crêt, Megève; 33-4-50-21-01-01. Open mid-December through mid-April, Wednesday-Sunday for dinner (and Tuesday in February); Saturday-Sunday for lunch.

Michel Bras
3 Michel Bras, Laguiole

In impeccably austere taste, overlooking an impeccably austere landscape, this granite-and-glass refuge is one of the most beautiful modern dining rooms in the world. And completely comfortable. Impressive wine list, with local offerings. The 15 guestrooms are in the same minimalist style, with handsome granite bathrooms. The rooms are less spectacular than the dining room—they lack its commanding view.

RECOMMENDED DISHES Gargouillou of young vegetables; pigeon with hazelnut oil and wild thyme; fruits with verbena sorbet.

Dinner: $100. Rooms: $170-$340. On the route de l'Aubrac, 3.7 miles north of Laguiole; 33-5-65-51-18-20; Open April 7 through November 1, Thursday-Sunday for lunch and dinner; also open Tuesday and Wednesday in July and August, but closed for lunch every day those months.

Régis Marcon
4 Auberge et Clos des Cimes, Saint-Bonnet-le-Froid

Typical French bourgeois dining room, with engraved glass, painted brick, and antiques. Good wine list, with fine Rhônes. The ten guestrooms and two suites are large and modern, with terrazzo-floored sitting rooms. They have a bucolic view of pastures with grazing horses, far better than the roadside view from the dining room.

RECOMMENDED DISHES Brochette Margaridou, seasonal mushroom specialties, lentil cake with pear sorbet.

Dinner: $190. Rooms: $165-230. Place de l'Eglise, Saint-Bonnet-le-Froid; 33-4-71-59-93-72; Open March 22-December 21. Closed Tuesday and Wednesday, and Monday nights in spring and fall.

Arthur Lubow wrote about the best new cafes and restaurants of San Francisco in the March/April issue of Departures.

Unless otherwise noted, restaurant prices reflect a three-course dinner for two, excluding beverages and gratuity. Hotel prices show high-season double-occupancy rates from the least expensive double to the most expensive suite.